Feuerherz (Heart of Fire) (2l008)





Director:     Luigi Falorni.

Starring:     Letekidan Micael (Awet), Solomie Micael (Freweyini), Seble Tilahun (Ma'aza), Daniel Seyoum (Mike'ele), Mekdes Wegene (Amrit), Samuel Semere (Haile).

a young girl is trained to fight in one of Eritrea's liberation armies in the struggle for independence from Ethiopia; became independent in 1993




Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Heart of Fire tells the story of little Awet, an Eritrean girl who gets caught up in the turmoil of the liberation war in Eritrea, a small country on the Horn of Africa.  The people of the area have been subjected to more than one hundred years of foreign rule.  "In the early sixties, Eritrean freedom fighters take up the fight against the Ethiopian occupiers.  But the liberation movement splits.  A fanatical, fratricidal war begins.  This film was inspired by true events." 

A woman hanging up her wash calls out for Abeba, asking why her baby is crying?   There is no answer, so the woman goes to check on the baby.  She finds the baby in a metal container.  Narrator Awet says:  "The nuns told me that my mother packed me in a suitcase for a long trip.  But then she forgot to take me with her."  Now little Awet lives in an orphanage.  She says much later that she learned that her mother ran away from the civil war.  She did not succeed. Her father brought her to the cloister and that was the first and last time he was at the orphanage.  No one knows if he is dead or alive.

Awet says that in the capital of Asmara no one talked to the children about the war.  Secretly,  Sister Anna told her about the brave freedom fighters.  In class, she tells the nun that Jesus was wrong.  If someone hits you on the right cheek and you can't hit the right cheek, then you can hit the left.  She demonstrates on a white boy who was teasing her. 

Awet says she often dreams of her father, a great freedom fighter, coming to the cloister and taking her away.  Then one day her teacher says that Awet's sister came to the cloister to talk with the nuns. She has come to take Awet to her father. 

Her sister Freweyni picks her up. They travel on a bus together.  Awet gets hungry and opens up the package the nun gave to her.  On top of the small loaf of bread is a picture of the Madonna with her heart on fire.  Awet splits the bread with Freweyni.

On the bus they start passing scenes of burned out vehicles and oil drums.   They come to a checkpoint where two men with AK-47s wait for them. The bus driver says everyone must get out.  After they show their papers and their bags are checked, they get back on the bus.  Freweyni tells her sister that was the last checkpoint.  Now they are in the liberated part of Eritrea. 

They stop at a bus depot and get out.  The sisters go into a bar.  Her father is standing up at a table with three other men sitting playing cards.  He sees Freweyni and says hello.  Then he sees his little Awet. Father introduces Awet to the men at the table.  They then sing a freedom song.

Two young men come in and ask the men at the table why they are singing such old songs?  One of them declares:  "The Jebha is finished!  Accept it!"  He says the Shabia is waging war now.  Dad socks the fellow and he goes down.  Dad then jumps on him and is going to hit him again, when he sees that Awet is very frightened by this violence. He gets off the man and says to him:  "Traitors!  We were fighting for Eritrea before you or your father were even born."  He shows the men the scar on his chest he got in battle.

Dad adds that this is a Jebha village and, if he has anything to say about it, it's going to stay that way.  The sassy fellow starts to leave but turns to say:  "The day will come when we chase you out of Eritrea."   This statement causes greater fear for Awet.  When they go to her father's house, she immediately goes to sleep when her sisters says she's going to bed.  (The living conditions are much worse here than at the cloister.  For instance there is no real bed nor is there a toilet.  Nor do they have running water.  They have to carry water in large tin cans.)

Sister tells Awet that dad did not get that scar on his chest from battle.  No, in their old village, he got into a fight at the bar and someone stabbed him in the bar-room brawl.  When they get back home from carrying water cans, Awet sees that the other children are playing with her things.  Awet grabs her things back, but she is still missing her heart of fire Madonna.  She goes to the biggest girl to get her insignia, but the girl runs from Awet.  When Awet catches her she jumps on top of the girl and wrestles the insignia from her.  The girl's mother is upset with Awet and asks why she had to hit her daughter?  The woman, named Genet, says that Awet is just like her father. 

In the morning Freweyni wakes up and tells her sister that she better get up or she will be in trouble.  Awet gets up.  She asks why don't the other children have to get up and work?  Sisters says because they are Genet's children.  The two sisters go get the water.  On their way back two big trucks pull up with many people in the back of the trucks.  Someone asks for a doctor, saying that they have had casualties.  They have just come from Disha, where they were attacked, not by the Ethiopians, but by the Shabia. 

While Awet stands around taking this all in, one of the bar patrons takes her water can from her.  Her father now tells her to go get some more water.  Awet gets very defiant and asks dad why can't he go get the water himself because he is just standing around anyway!  And, she adds, dad is no freedom fighter.  Her father slaps her on the right and then the left cheek

Dad takes his two daughters to the camp of the freedom fighters.  Dad leaves them there saying:  "From now on you are daughters of Eritrea."  He starts walking away and Awet yells at him that she is not like him.  And now they are the slaves of the fighters.  Along with other children without parents, they are transported to another camp.  When she lays down by her sister at night, she asks if this was her fault, but Freweyni says that all of dad's friends brought their children to the Jebha.   Freweyni does, however, warn her sister that she should keep her big mouth shut.

In the morning, a woman freedom fighter gets the children up.  She takes them over to a tent and has them sit down in front of it.  She then introduces them to another woman by the name of Ma'aza.  She will be their new instructor.  Ma'aza's assistant measures the children's size in relation to the size of an AK-47 and then give those who are taller than the sights of the rifle an AK-47.  Awet is too small to get a weapon and now she is separated from her sister who has been given a weapon. 

At meal time Awet goes right up to get her food, but a young fellow tells her she has to wait until all the fighters are fed.  By the time she can get some food, they are already out of injera.  She protests a little too harshly and the teacher's assistant gives her a box on the left ear and asks her:  "Looking for trouble?" 

Awet sees that the fighters have it much better than the new "recruits".  If one has a weapon, one gets to sleep in a tent and gets enough food to eat.  She tells a boy named Tesfi that they need to get guns. 

In the morning the news is that the freedom fighters are attacking a base on the River Gash.  Awet comes right up and says that she and her two friends are here to fight for freedom.  Their rebel leader is there and he tells Ma'aza to give them the small kids some wooden guns.  She gives them wooden guns, but this doesn't make Awet happy. 

The youngest recruits are now taught a new song called "Young Fighter".  The fighters return with a victory. 

At dinner time Awet garbs a dish with some bread on it and runs away.  The smallest kids run with her.   

Awet sings for the entire group.  The crowd likes the song and the way she sang it.

Awet says she has now found a new family with Ma'aza and Mike'ele.  She goes with them to gather supplies from the villages.  She says she enjoys being treated like a hero of the village. 

A truck brings a badly wounded man to the camp.  Awet has to wash the man's bloody shirt.  Three more wounded men are brought in.  The wounded came via another attack by the Shabia.  The leader Tedros has been killed.  Ma'aza becomes the new leader.  The people start a chant of:  "Death to the Shabia!"  And now, Awet finally gets her real weapon.  She receives her training with the boys.  Mike'ele comes to Ma'aza to asks Ma'aza why she gave weapons to the very small children?  She says that if the Shabia attack again, the children will have to defend themselves.  So it's the sooner the better that they learn how to defend themselves. Mike'ele watches Awet as she fires her weapon for the first time. 

Awet is playing down by the river with the boys.  She swims in the river but the current is so strong that it takes her down stream a bit.  There she sees the body of a lot of dead men and one dead woman and she starts screaming.  The bodies are brought up onto the river bank and Ma'aza says that these people are all Shabia.  They identify those bodies that are Jebha and take them to be buried.  They then throw the Shabia bodies back into the river. 

Awet asks Mike'ele if he has killed a lot of enemy?  He says no because he's just no good with weapons.  He says he even went hunting one time with an unloaded gun.  After hearing this, Awet removes the bullets from her magazine, as well as the other magazines. 

In the morning Awet travels with the small group at the very end of the line.  The teacher's assistant tells one of the boys to go get a tortoise so they can eat it later.  When the fellow tries to pick up the tortoise gunfire starts.  The teacher's assistant tells her group to unlock their weapons and fire, but only one of the weapons works.  They have to retreat immediately.  Tesfi is wounded in the leg and the teacher's assistant has to carry him.  As they retreat, a group of older boys goes after the three Shabia in the area. 

The teacher's assistant discovers that most of the magazines are empty of bullets.  The boys swear that the magazines were full yesterday.  So the woman asks who unloaded the weapons?  She points at Awet and says that it was she who unloaded the bullets.  The woman goes to Ma'aza and says that Awet engaged in sabotage and she should be executed!  Instead, she is left with a rifle as the trucks move out to head back to the camp.  She stays in the kneeling position with the weapon across her shoulders.  She cries a bit.  Mike'ele jumps in a jeep and retrieves Awet. 

Awet jumps in the back of a truck and asks Tesafi if his wound hurts him?  She apologizes to him, but Tesfai says he hates her and wants to be alone.  Mike'ele and Ma'aza continue to fight with each other.  Mike'ele suggests that they leave the little ones with the villagers.  Ma'aza says she can't believe that he could be so naive!  The Shabia will grab them and make them fight against the Jebha.

They camp for the evening.  Awet goes to her sister and asks her for some injera.  Sister asks her why is she always causing trouble?  She gives Awet some food and then tells her to get out of here!

At night Ma'aza says that tomorrow they will head for the border with Sudan.   There they will join another Jebha unit.  Mike'ele tries to comfort a crying Awet.  He tells her that he is leaving and he wants to take all the small children with him.  He tells her to keep this a secret or Ma'aza will kill them all.  He says that at the border with Sudan they will follow the nomad trails through the desert.  Awet says that some of the children would tell Ma'aza if they were told what is Mike'ele's plan. 

Awet is worried so she goes to Mike'ele when everyone is sleeping, wakes him and asks him where is he planning on going?  He says he is going to Italy because that's where his parents live.  Awet asks him to take her along with him.  Mike'ele tells her she must get some sleep now. 

During the night a mortar shell lands in the encampment.  After a short delay, another round lands and shrapnel from it downs a man.  Someone tells the men to retreat and get on the trucks.  Awet is very scared and breathes heavily in fear.  More shells fall and she sees more men go down.  Mike'ele is hit and he dies as Awet tries to wake him.  She sees a truck leaving her behind and she runs for it.  A man picks her up from behind and puts her on the truck.  She tells the truck driver to go back for Mike'ele, but that's not going to happen. 

When they pass by the local village they recently visited, they see that everything has been destroyed.  At their old encampment, everybody is gone.  A soldier tells Ma'aza that it looks like the survivors walked over into Sudan and suggests that they do the same.  Ma'aza rejects the idea saying they will hold this position no matter what the cost.

Awet now loads her magazine with bullets.  She is getting ready for the next possible firefight. 

The next day Awet's group comes up behind a Shabia position by accident.  The kids get into firing position, unlock their weapons and start firing at the Shabia.  Awet fires, but is soon knocked over by the recoil from her bullets.  They check on the enemy and then proceed ahead.  Awet lags behind the group.  She looks at the dead soldiers. Awet sees a soldier crawling away and she tells him to stop.  She considers killing him, but decides not to shoot him. 

She returns to base and asks Ma'aza why don't they leave for the Sudan?  It's over for them.  Ma'aza slaps her down.  She tells her assistant to let the girl go if she wants to go.  Awet goes and gets her sister and the wounded Tesfai.  They start walking to Sudan by following the tracks of others.  They collapse and go to sleep.

They are found by nomads in the morning.  They take the three kids to the next larger town where they find other Jebha refugees.  Later Awet learns that no one in Ma'aza's unit survived.  For awhile they stayed with relatives of their mother in Sudan.  The relatives took them to Europe where they all live now.  Awet says:  "One day I'll return to Asmara.  And I will see Sister Anna again when my country is free."

Eritrea achieved independence from Ethiopia in 1993.  Many Eritrean refugees are still unable to return to their homeland.  Over 300,000 children are involved in armed conflicts worldwide."  UNICEF Report 2008. 


Awet, a little girl in an orphanage, dreams of being reunited with her freedom fighter father.  Her dream is fulfilled because one day her older sister comes to get her to take her to their father. Although she gets her wish, Awet has no idea what she will have to pay for this.  She soon is involved in the fight for Eritrean independence and she herself is forced to become a freedom fighter against her wishes.  She has a hard time justifying all this killing.  She has pacifist tendencies and even tries a bit of sabotage on her own Jebha people.  She sees action in small fights with Shabia forces.  The forces are both Eritrean, but ethnic hostilities exist between the two groups and sets them at each other's throats.  She never gives up her ideals and perseveres regardless of what others say or do to her.  In this, even at her very young age, she becomes a leader for her small group of young children involved in the war. And she saves lives.  he little girl persevered even again the indifference to her shown by her own sister.  It seems that the older sister was in a state of depression through the entire movie, but facing such terrible things, it's no wonder she was sleep-walking through the war experience. 

Letekidan Micael was very good as Awet. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:

Eritrea is shaped like a trumpet with a short stem.  The top part of the trumpet lies along the Red Sea across from Saudi Arabia and Yemen.  The mouth of the horn is facing Sudan to its west.  The most of the trumpet is adjacent to Ethiopia.  (The tiny country of Dijbouti lies at the mouth piece of the trumpet stem.)

Eritrea was part of the Ethiopian Empire.

1935  --  the Italians conquer Ethiopia, until then the only country free of European control in Africa.  The Italians brought Catholicism to Eritrea.

1935-1936  --  the Italians use Eritrea as a base to launch its campaign to colonize Ethiopia. 

1940  --  by this date, 1/3 of the Eritreans were Catholics. 

1941  --  British forces defeat the Italian army in Eritrea at the Battle of Keren and place the colony under British military administration.

early 1950s  --  the USA wanted Ethiopia to keep Eritrea.

1952 --  the United Nations resolution to federate Eritrea with Ethiopia goes into effect.  The Eritreans want their independence.

1958 --  Eritreans establish the Eritrean Liberation Movement (ELM).  Under the leadership of Hamid Idris Awate, ELM engages in clandestine political activities against the imperial designs of Ethiopia.

1960  --  Eritrean exiles in Cairo found the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), which becomes dedicated to armed struggle for independence. 

1961  --  the ELF begins military operations.   

by 1962  --  the ELM had been discovered and destroyed by Ethiopian imperial authorities.

1962  --  Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia dissolves the Eritrean parliament and annexes Eritrea.

by 1971  --  ELF activity forces the emperor had declare martial law in Eritrea.

1972  --  founding of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), whose leadership is dominated by leftist, Christian dissidents.  ELF and EPLF fight each other as they both continue to fight Ethiopia. 

1972-1974  -- civil war within Eritrea. 

1974  --  Emperor Selassie is ousted in a coup. The war for Eritrean independence continues. 

by the late 1970s  --  EPLF gets the upper hand over the ELM. 

1977  --  Russian aide to Ethiopia helps that country to regain the upper hand over the Eritreans. 

1988  --  the EPLF captures Afabet, headquarters of the Ethiopian Army in northeastern Eritrea.  This takes a third of the Ethiopian Army out of action. 

end of the 1980s.  --  the Russians now withdraw their military aide.  Now EPLF can make military advances on Ethiopia. 

1991  --  fall of the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia. 

1991  --  Ethiopia recognizes the right of Eritrea to hold a referendum concerning its independence.

1993  --  Eritrea gets its independence from Ethiopia. 

1998-2000 --  a border dispute leads to the Eritrean-Ethiopian War in which thousands of soldiers are killed from both countries.  The UN monitors a security zone between the two countries. 

2007 (December)  --  Eritrea has 4,000 troops in the 'demilitarized zone' with a further 120,000 along its side of the border, whereas Ethiopia maintains 100,000 troops along its side.



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